0009: Seeing Ghosts

Hollow World #9

Lamont lit a cigarette and waited for a response from Earth. Water dripped here and there from leaky utility pipes far overhead, forming a few small puddles in the imperfections of the grimy, copper-colored floor. The smell that hung in the air of the trench was not unlike that of the scrapyards he would pass on his walks to outer London in years past—rust, tinged with rot. Except now he wasn’t carrying a gas mask for fear of encountering something worse than an unpleasant smell. The thought reminded him of why so many millions had migrated here in the first place. 

In the span of fifteen minutes, Lamont saw no one on the street except for two fast-moving scooters and a police patrol cart, the occupants of which slowed to scrutinize him, but did not consider him worth stopping for. Lamont was checking his wristwatch for the dozenth time when the operator’s voice interrupted the cheery jazz piece that had been piping tinnily into his ear. “A reply has been received, sir. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” Lamont acknowledged, dropping a third cigarette to the ground at his feet and cradling the earpiece on his shoulder as he pulled a small notepad from his pocket.

Henry’s familiar voice came through after a series of clicks. Smooth, confident, with the steady diction of a man who used words like a fish uses water. “Hello, Monty. Your telegram was received. I’ll see that Seventeen gets a token of gratitude for his help; perhaps it will persuade him to grant another interview. ‘Escher’ rings a bell. I recall meeting a consultant by that name who made a series of technical drawings for the Icarus project in ‘66 or ‘67. I’ll see what I can find. Meanwhile, your article on the Martian radio monopoly was published Sunday and made a stir. Good work, but I wouldn’t weep if you stuck to less provocative topics while you continue your investigation. Try some human interest, maybe. Oh, and I saw Liza two nights ago. Doing very well. The new exhibition is keeping her busy. She sends her best. Carry on, chap.”

Lamont scribbled on his pad, not bothering with shorthand:

—19 Dec. 1997—
Escher - Cons. Icarus 66/67
Too much attention. Human interest.
Sends her best.

The tip of his pencil broke. After another series of clicks, the voice of the operator returned. “Did you get that, sir?”

“I got it,” Lamont hissed through his teeth.

“Very good, sir. Will you be transmitting a response?”

Lamont bit his tongue while he considered. “No,” he finally said. “Not at this time.”

“Very well, sir. Goodbye, and thank you for using Intersol—”

Lamont returned the receiver to its hook with more force than was strictly necessary, causing the change inside the machine to jangle.

The walk back to his apartment was a blur. He had intended to get something to eat while he was out, but he passed by his usual food stands without stopping, absently turning his wedding ring on his finger. Before he knew it, he was unlocking the door to his apartment.

Everything was where he had left it. The lamp was still on, a half-cup of coffee sat next to his typing machine, and the papers he had toppled earlier were still scattered across the surface of the card table and the floor. Not bothering to take off his coat, Lamont paced to the table and began to put them back in order. They were the sorts of things he tended to gather a lot of—photostats of internal communications, budget and expenditure records, copies of phone directory pages. He glanced over each sheet and placed it in a pile on the table for appropriate filing.

Kneeling down, he gathered the papers that had been scattered on the floor, leafing through them. Suddenly, he stopped, his eyes widening as they absorbed the contents of one sheet. His hands began to tremble. Frantically, he flipped through the other papers before returning to the one that had stopped him. Dropping the other sheets again, he rose to his feet so fast that his head hit the edge of the card table, scattering the papers he had sorted across the floor.

Lamont’s eyes darted around the apartment before returning with burning intensity to the sheet that was tightly gripped in his hand. He paced back and forth across the apartment before finally settling on the edge of his cot, from which he could see his own ashen features in the mirror of the adjacent bathroom. He looked, something inside him ironically reflected, like a man who had seen a ghost.

Next: Questions of Sanity